Month: May 2010

Leading advisor to Conservative think-tank on why families should be kept out of Yarl’s Wood

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Malcolm Stevens, former lead Children’s Services Inspector with the Government’s Social Services Inspectorate, Director of Justice Care and a key advisor to Ian Duncan Smith’s influential Conservative think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, explains why Yarl’s Wood Immigration centre is no place for children and families.

It is heartening news that the coalition Government will review child detention laws. But it is not surprising: the often traumatising practice of detaining children in places like Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre has been the subject of widespread criticism from paediatricians, psychiatrists and even the government’s own inspectorate.

When he became England’s first Commissioner for Children, Sir Al Aynsley-Green said that nothing in his 30-year career as a children’s doctor prepared him for his first visit to Yarl’s Wood, Bedfordshire, in 2005.

His reports and letters to the government read like a series of exposés, revealing the appalling life experiences of the children and families that he encountered there. He describes children snatched from their homes in dawn raids; transportation in prison-like vehicles, with young children separated from their parents; and incarceration in prison-like institutions provided by private contractors. These prison contractors, it transpired, showed little evidence of their suitability to the delicate task with which they were entrusted.

In March 2010, the Government’s Inspectorate (HMIP) reported that detention in Yarl’s Wood “clearly and adversely affected children’s welfare”. This came shortly after Sir Al himself concluded: “Yarl’s Wood is no place for a child”. And we still await publication of the investigation by Bedfordshire’s Local Safeguarding Children Board into allegations of “sexually harmful behaviour” between unrelated children, and the significant failures that may have led to these incidences.

So it cannot be stated clearly enough: Yarl’s Wood is not a centre for children and families. It is not run like one, it is not regulated like one and it is not inspected like one. It is unlike any other accommodation I have seen provided for children in the post 1989 Children Act era.

This has to change – and quickly. We now have an opportunity to rethink how children and families are looked after in what are complex, and invariably sad, circumstances. Hopefully, this will include consideration of the advances in this area that have been made elsewhere in Europe. Of course, it is reassuring to hear that ministers intend to move quickly on this, but we must ensure that a review does not mean another delay.

Equivocation is not an option in Britain. For a country which rightly takes pride in safeguarding its children, it is indefensible to force a small group of them to live in a place where they are known to be at risk – and where they are not protected by the same regulatory framework which applies to safeguard children elsewhere.

We must apply the same principles to immigration centres that are enforced nationwide. Children must be removed urgently from wherever their safety and welfare is at risk. As this includes Yarl’s Wood, it must be closed at once.

Malcolm Stevens is a Director of JusticeCare solutions. He is a former lead children’s services Inspector with the Government’s Social Services Inspectorate and now advises the Centre for Social Justice and Sir Al Aynsley-Green.

Former Children’s Commissioner calls for fundamental change in culture and mindset of government over child detention

The first Children’s Commissioner for England, Sir Al Aynsley-Green, writing in The Guardian, calls on the government to release the families from Britain’s asylum prisons now.

Aynsley-Green who has done more than any single person to expose the arrest and detention of innocent children, the injustices and sheer horror of their lived experiences, urges: ‘a fundamental change in the culture and mindset of the government, its ministers, its civil servants and its contractors so that the welfare and best interests of children are put first, before the administrative convenience of government.’

This is his first published article since leaving his post as Children’s Commissioner in February 2010.

Nothing in my 30 years’ experience of being a children’s doctor prepared me for my first visit to Yarl’s Wood immigration removal centre (IRC) in 2005, soon after becoming children’s commissioner. Using the power given to me by parliament to enter any premises other than a child’s home to interview any child, I asked to be treated as a newly arrested child and to follow their journey through the prison.

I saw a bewildered 10-year-old, smartly dressed in his school uniform alongside his distraught mother – they had been snatched from their home in a “dawn raid”. He asked if his friends knew where he was, worried about his belongings, and didn’t understand what had happened to him, even though I was told he would be deported the next day.

I passed through barred and locked doors where even babies had their nappies searched by prison-like officers, keys a-jangling; withdrawn and deeply traumatised children clinging to their mothers, refusing to eat the unhealthy food provided, with developmental regression, bed-wetting and soiling; mothers struggling to maintain breast feeding; inadequate play and schooling – the litany of human misery was endless. I was appalled and resolved that children seeking refuge would be an immediate priority for my new organisation.

We studied the “journeys” of children seeking asylum – the screening process where unaccompanied children’s claims for asylum were assessed; the process of age determination, including the use of X-rays; the experiences of young people in the care of a local authority, and, through subsequent visits to Yarl’s Wood IRC, the process of arrest, detention and deportation of families, many of whose children were born in the UK, and were well integrated into schools and local communities.

We published rigorous reports of our findings, and exposed to media and parliamentary attention the truth of the appalling life experiences of these children.

Much that is good has now happened – the joint report by the medical Royal Colleges confirming the physical and psychological damage caused by detention; the removal by government of its reservation to article 22 of the UN convention on the rights of the child, thereby giving asylum-seeking children the same rights as British children; the duty of care on statutory bodies to promote the welfare of children; the improvements in the physical environment in Yarl’s Wood IRC; and now, the announcement last week by Damian Green, the new minister for asylum and immigration, of a review to end the detention of children.

But there is unfinished business.

We need a fundamental change in the culture and mindset of the government, its ministers, its civil servants and its contractors so that the welfare and best interests of children are put first, before the administrative convenience of government. A speedy end to the detention of children. The promised “review” should not be an excuse for civil service prevarication. The evidence of harm is overwhelming and for a country that takes pride in safeguarding its children, it is indefensible, and frankly shameful, to force a small group of them into detention where their welfare is known to be at risk. They should be released now. The Local Children’s Safeguarding Board in Bedfordshire is currently investigating serious allegations of sexually harmful behaviour and safeguarding failures in Yarl’s Wood exposed by my most recent report. The full results must be published quickly.

We must know more of what happens to those children deported to their parents’ countries of origin. Are they safe, are they well and are they being cared for?

We need urgent research to establish an ethically sound approach to the assessment of age of individuals who claim to be a child but who have no papers to prove it. Exposing children to radiation (X-rays) for immigration control without medical benefit to them is unethical and, where a child cannot give informed consent, potentially unlawful. The Labour government’s commitment not to use X-rays, extracted under pressure, must prevail.

There must be full public and evidence-based debate about the ethics of using new medical technology – such as DNA analysis – for administrative purposes to assess paternity and country of origin.

The government must monitor the impact of financial cuts to local authorities on the welfare of unaccompanied minors (children who have no parent to look after them) who already are often poorly served.

These are all challenges for the new government and I urge that they are taken seriously. I welcome the news that alternatives to the detention of children will be reviewed. Much remains to be done to show that the UK is seen internationally to be an example of best practice. Will the new coalition government rise to the challenge?

Queen’s speech confirms plans to end child detention but fears raised over punitive alternatives

The government confirmed plans in the Queen’s Speech today that it “will limit the number of non-European Union economic migrants entering the United Kingdom and end the detention of children for immigration purposes.” However, David Cameron’s government  has yet to commit itself to a time-table which means that the abusive imprisonment of children and their parents in immigration detention centres continues unabated and with no definite end in sight.

Neil Puffett in a good article for  Children and Young People Now gathers responses from a number of child welfare and refugee and asylum supporter organisations and highlights concerns at the prospect that Damian Green’s review could result in children being separated from their families.

The government must not be allowed to replace one form of child cruelty with another. Any alternative to detention must be humanitarian and in the best interests of the child and not designed to suit the operational convenience of the immigration detention industry and the UK Borders Agency.

Colin Firth speaks out against Sehar’s detention and deportation.

In Monday’s Guardian, Colin Firth speaks out against the continued detention of children and families and the appalling circumstances that led to the forcible return of Sehar Shebaz to Pakistan.

I am distressed to learn that only days after the government agreed to end the iniquity of child detention, a mother and baby were summarily arrested, detained and deported last week. Sehar Shebaz – from Pakistan – and her baby Wania, who have been living lawfully in Glasgow for three years, were snatched on Monday when reporting as required every fortnight to the authorities, whisked to Dungaval prison, detained and then taken the 350 miles to Yarl’s Wood detention centre. At Yarl’s Wood they were segregated from fellow detainees in the “family care suite”, then taken to the airport on Saturday evening and flown to Pakistan.
Shebaz is the victim of well-documented domestic violence in the UK. Her escape from her husband is extremely likely to incur retributive violence when she sets foot in Pakistan. Her life and her baby’s are at serious risk. Damian Green, the immigration minister, refused to give Shebaz compassionate leave to remain despite receiving copies of police reports and letters from Blackburn Women’s Aid confirming she was subjected to domestic violence. I urge the new government to demonstrate civilised and compassionate values by doing everything in its power to secure Shebaz and her baby’s safety, to stop the shameful cruelty of arresting and detaining children and their parents, and to release the families currently being held without prevarication.
Colin Firth

Government turns its back on hundreds of requests to save Sehar: Friends from Glasgow bid a tearful farewell to mother & baby.

This is the text of Positive Action’s Statement to Supporters of the Sehar must stay in Scotland campaign.

We made a last minute plea this morning at 8.30 am to all the key players  including Deputy Prime minister Nick Clegg, Immigration Minister Damian Green, Theresa May Home Secretary, but to no avail.

Sehar Shebaz was deported on a PIA flight at 17:00 HRS today. Friends from Glasgow took a bus down to say goodbye to her at the airport and to take her the few belongings that were left behind in her flat when she was detained by Brand Street Reporting Centre last week. Dr Imtiaz Rasul and his family from Birmingham also went to say goodbye at the airport. Dr Imtiaz said:

It was really terrible. Sehar looked very small and quiet. She had security officers and police around her as if she was a criminal. It was truly humiliating to say goodbye to her like that. Other people in the airport were watching. Sehar told us to say thankyou to everyone, she tried to smile but in front of police we could feel what she was feeling. My country takes in more asylum seekers than the UK. If the UK only wants to humiliate people then why have an asylum policy, just tell people dont come here. I feel very sad for Sehar and her baby was just upset. We hope in her hearts that her pain does not continue but we are very worried about what might happen. 
On behalf of Sehar, thank you for writing into support Sehar. In total 579 people wrote letters. Some of your letters were heart breaking, others gave us new leads to claim clemency for Sehar. Thanks especially to Jeremy Cram, the emergency solicitor who stepped into make representations on behalf of Sehar, Baroness Shirley Williams, Ann McKechin MP, Clare Sambrook, John O (Free Movement), the Unity Centre, Liza Schuster of City University, Carole Ewart, John Wilkes of the Scottish Refugee Council, Heather Jones who visited Sehar in Yarl’s Wood, Dr Imtiaz Rasul and many many others.
This campaign was particularly vociferous because Sehar and her baby girl were incarcerated in Dungavel on the same day that the new coalition government told us that child detention would end – and end immediately in Scotland – whereupon Sehar was summarily removed from Scottish soil and driven down to Yarl’s Wood  Detention Centre to be locked up there instead. Sehar was so distressed to see the other families locked up in Yarl’s Wood. In particular she mentioned an Iranian couple who have been detained eight months and the wife is due to give birth next month, having spent her entire pregnancy in detention and clearly not fit to travel on a plane so why detain her? 
Sehar was instrumental in ensuring that the letter to Nick Clegg was seen by the outside world. She was then swiftly separated from the other families and prevented from communicating with anyone else. The new coalition government had a chance to redress the previous government’s human rights abuses of asylum seekers – let’s call it what it is after all. They never took that chance.
We are now concerned about the remaining eleven Yarl’s Wood families, four of whom are on hunger strike. We also remain concerned about exactly what the new government means when they say they will end child detention. Will families be able to claim asylum without fear of being separated and children being taken into care while parents are locked up? After the latest debacle about ending child detention, we have to be cautious about exactly what the politicians mean when they come out and say these things. At present, it means Scottish asylum families being driven straight away hundreds of miles away form their communities and sources of support to the controversial Yarl’ s Wood facility which even the Chief Inspector of Prisons has branded as unsuitable for children. Let us not forget that UKBA themselves admitted that FAMILIES DO NOT ABSCOND.
In the spirit of the new government’s commitment to end child detention, Positive Action in Housing is calling on the government to release with immediate effect all remaining Yarls Wood families back to their communities so that their children can return to a normal life and schools and so that the asylum claims of their parents can be properly investigated in a humane and civilised way – this is the least recompense we could give as a society for the inhumane way we have treated these families.
Thank you again for your support. 
Robina Qureshi
Positive Action in Housing

When they said ‘We will end child detention,’ they meant ‘Keep on arresting babies’

Clare Sambrook, novelist and journalist, is a pro-bono co-ordinator of End Child Detention Now

This article is re-posted from OpenDemocracy 19 May 2010.

At 11.36 this morning the mother of an 8-month old baby made a desperate plea for help on her mobile.

‘I told them please don’t send me and my baby in the van for nine hours, she is too young, I asked them to speak to my lawyer. But she just told me, “Look either you go in the van or we will take your baby in a separate van and you won’t see her until you get to Yarl’s Wood.”

According to Robina Qureshi, the Glasgow-based charity director who took the mother’s call, 25 year old Sehar Shebaz had been vomiting since the early hours and baby Wanya was distressed.

Sehar and Wania, who have committed no crime, are being forcibly taken from Dungavel Prison in Scotland on a 356 mile journey to Yarl’s Wood, the run-for-profit Bedfordshire detention centre.

Qureshi says Sehar, from Pakistan, who has lived in the UK for three years, has never tried to abscond, and has reported fortnightly to Brand Street Reporting Centre, as required.

Indeed, Sehar and Wanya were seized on Monday while reporting at Brand Street as usual, just days after the new government claimed: ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.’

Only last Saturday immigration minister Damian Green confessed to the Guardian: ‘I have visited Yarl’s Wood on several occasions and I have always been distressed by the sight of children behind bars.’

This very morning the minister announced — under pressure from the Scottish government — that no more children will be held at Dungavel.

Scottish Education Secretary Mike Russell has informed Home Secretary Theresa May of his ‘strong concerns’ about Sehar’s and Wanya’s detention and Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner Tam Baillie has urged their swift release.

Qureshi, whose Glasgow-based charity, Positive Action in Housing, is spearheading an emergency campaign, says: ‘The new coalition government’s policy to end detention in Scotland immediately is a joke. Those very same children, as young as 8 months old, are being driven hundreds of miles to be locked up in Yarl’s Wood instead. Asylum families are the least likeliest to abscond yet public money is being spent on getting tough against asylum seekers. It’s a source of utter shame to say one thing and change nothing, just keep on keeping on with this inhumanity.’

She added: ‘We ask for assurances from immigration minister Damian Green that in the spirit of goodwill, he will ensure Sehar and her baby are released and allowed to return to their home in Glasgow on compassionate grounds.’

No reprieve for Sehar as UKBA threatens to separate mother and baby on 9 hour trip to Yarl’s Wood

As the government announces that Dungavel will no longer be used for the detention of children, but will be re-purposed as ‘a health check’ facility for families who are facing removal, young mother Sehar Shebaz and her baby are being transported in a prison van to Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre in Bedfordshire from where the Home Office plans to deport her to Pakistan where she faces violent retribution from her husband’s family after fleeing from domestic violence.

Sehar said: “I told them please don’t send me and my baby in the van for nine hours she is too young, I asked them to speak to my lawyer. But she (Dungavel staff member) just told me, “Look either you go in the van or we will take your baby in a separate van and you wont see her until you get to Yarl’s Wood.”

Sehar Shebaz and her 8 month old baby Wania who are facing deportation to Pakistan

Robina Qureshi from Positive Action in Housing, Glasgow who has been campaigning on behalf of the family stated:

The new announcement about ending child detention in Scotland means nothing for Sehar, families are simply being driven hundreds of miles and being locked up in Yarl’s Wood in England. The victory was very hollow and we have won no concessions in this case. Please could you use whatever power you possess to stop Sehar and her baby being taken to Yarl’s Wood this morning.

Please express your concern at the treatment of Sehar Shebaz and her baby and call for their immediate release and return to Glasgow.


Danny Alexander, Secretary of State for Scotland

First Minister Alex Salmond

Tavish Scott, leader of the Lib Dems MSPs

Nick Clegg, Lib Dems leader

Tam Baillie, Childrens Commissioner

UKBA arrests and imprisons an 8 month old baby days after government pledges to end child detention

Last night an 8 month old baby and her mother were arrested, taken from their home and forcibly detained in Dungavel immigration removal centre in Scotland.

So what’s going on..?

On 12 May, the new government said, ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes’.

There was nothing in the declaration to indicate that the process would be anything other than swift or immediate. Then on Monday 16 May, Damian Green, the newly appointed immigration minister, announced:

Our coalition government is committed to ending the detention of children for immigration purposes, we think this is the right thing to do. I hope that we can have plans agreed within the next few months.

I am launching a comprehensive review of alternatives to child detention, including opening a dialogue with relevant stakeholders, organisations and experts.

This work has already started, because it is in all our interests, including those children currently in detention, to do it quickly, but to also do it well and safely.

While keeping children’s welfare at the heart of what we do, our government is committed to returning those with no right to stay in the UK

Green then added in a statement to the BBC:

Whilst this immediate review is ongoing, current policy remains in place.

Let’s be clear. There is not a single reputable, independent medical or psychological study that will show the detention of children to be anything other than harmful and abusive.

Sir Al Aynsley-Green, the paediatrician who, as the first Children’s Commissioner for England, did more than any single person to expose the arrest and detention of innocent children, the injustices and sheer horror of their lived experiences, said:

I am looking for two things: A demonstration of intent by releasing those currently held, not least because absconding is not an issue. Within weeks rather than months produce robust proposals. Detention is inhumane and shocking and there is no place for it in a country that claims to be civilised.

Stakeholders, organisations and experts should make it clear that child welfare is the absolute priority and that no child’s interest can be served by being detained even for the 72 hours which the Home Office continues misleadingly to claim is the maximum period of detention in Tinsley House.

We are witnessing an orchestrated attempt to co-opt children’s charities and refugee and asylum seeker welfare organisations in the hope that by including them in dialogue and a pledge of future action the new administration will secure their silence and compliance.

Now is the time for all those individuals, groups, parties and organisations who genuinely want to see an IMMEDIATE END to the scandal of child immigration detention to mobilise and vocalise their anger and opposition to the imprisonment of baby Wanda and her mother Shehar, and the many other innocent victims of this brutal and unnecessary denial of basic human rights (if you would like to find out more about Shehar and Wanda contact Glasgow Unity at


  • Lobby your MPs, especially if you have a Conservative or Liberal Democrat member of parliament, (you can find details via theyworkforyou). A model letter can be found at the top of this website.
  • Call Damian Green’s office on 020 7219 3518, fax 020 7219 0904 or email: and demand to know why babies and children continue to be arrested and detained when the government pledged to stop it.
  • Write to the national and local press expressing your anger that the government is failing to honour this most easily achieved and humanitarian of its coalition pledges.
  • Keep checking our website for details of actions we will be taking up and down the country in the run up to refugee week to highlight the continuing abuse of children by the UK immigration authorities.

Let’s make sure they really do end child detention now

If they mean the immediate closure of Yarl’s Wood, that should be a cause for great rejoicing. This is why we must hold them to it

By Clare Sambrook (from OpenDemocracy, 12 May 2010).

‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,’ says today’s coalition agreement. A stunning victory for children, decency and the Liberal Democrats if this pledge proves good. That may be a very big if.

Days before the election David Cameron offered to set up a ‘working party’ including charities to ‘review child detention’. What’s to review? NHS paediatricians and psychologists Lorek et al six months ago found that children at Yarl’s Wood were ‘clearly vulnerable, marginalized, and at risk of mental and physical harm as a result of state sanctioned neglect (inadequate care and protection), and possibly abuse in the sense of exposure to violence within the detention facilities themselves.’ The Children’s Commissioner Sir Al Aynsley Green, himself an eminent paediatrician working from irresistible evidence of harm, called repeatedly on the Labour government over years to stop detaining children.

To borrow Australian psychiatrist Professor Patrick McGorry’s description of his own country’s detention centres, ours too are ‘factories for producing mental illness’.

‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes.’ They better had. And quickly too. Arrest and detention causes children swift and lasting damaging, rendering them confused, fearful, unable to sleep, according to Lorek et al. Children suffer headaches, tummy pains and weight loss and exhibit severe emotional and behavioural problems.

Dr Frank Arnold, a torture scars expert who cares for detainees said today, ‘If for any reason the government delays or reneges on this promise I would like to invite the immigration minister to join me in examining a willing family in detention for them to learn first hand the harm that continuing detention is doing to people.’

Delay or prevarication over this policy which has no proper purpose — a UK Border Agency executive let slip last year that the Agency knows families don’t abscond but persists in detaining them anyway because it’s a deterrent — will invite rising pressure on the government and on the corporations that profit from this shameful business.

Yesterday Dr Arnold put a question to Chris Hyman the Pentecostal Christian who races Formula 3 Ferraris and trousers £4,325 every day running Serco, the security giant that runs Yarl’s Wood detention centre for profit.

At the company’s annual meeting at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, Dr Arnold said:

‘Serco is expanding its activities in Healthcare to include NHS hospital management, polyclinics and GP services. At the same time, the company is receiving serious criticism and reputational harm because of its role in the incarceration of children at Yarl’s Wood Immigration Detention Centre under contract to the UK Border Agency. As the Chief Inspector of Prisons and Children’s Champion have publicly insisted, it is not possible to lock up children (who have done no wrong) without harming them. Will the board agree to take legal steps to obtain release from its contracts with UK BA over administrative detention to improve the company’s reputation?’

Hyman, who chairs the Prince of Wales’s charity In Kind Direct, said Serco had made improvements not required by its government contract, including a new school building at Yarl’s Wood — called Hummingbird House — and cooking facilities where families may prepare ‘culturally appropriate meals’. Hyman invited Arnold to see for himself.

Arnold, a regular visitor to detention centres, said:

‘Many of these children suffer neglect of serious medical conditions, both physical and psychological which are frequently made worse by their imprisonment. Examples include children detained while in sickle crisis, continuing detention in ignorance of a vital central venous feeding line in place, failure to provide immunisation and malaria prophylaxis when due, weight loss, behavioural regression, onset or deterioration of pre-existing PTSD and depression, and suicidal behaviour. All of these failures of care have been documented by clinical experts and in parliament and the media.’

Arnold went on:

‘Serco are contracted to manage people in detention but also, through Serco healthcare, to certify them as fit for detention. This is an insoluble conflict of interest and must cease. However prettily you paint the walls, these children are still imprisoned, dealing with the traumas of dawn raids and being locked up. The administrative detention of children is simply too harmful to be accepted in a civilised society.’

If the immediate closure of Yarl’s Wood is what is meant by, ‘We will end the detention of children for immigration purposes,’ then that is cause for rejoicing and huge thanks to Nick Clegg. But not yet. We must hold them to it.

New Cameron Government Agrees to End Child Detention

In the early hours of this morning, Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister issued a statement in which as part of a Tory commitment to put a cap on immigration it was agreed to put an end to child detention immigration controls (the latter was a Lib Dem proposal).

End Child Detention Now believes that this important shift in policy has been won thanks to the amazing efforts of campaigners from several organisations and with the help of prominent writers, actors, doctors, refugee community groups, faith groups and parliamentarians from all parties who have kept up relentless pressure in the media and in local communities across the country.

However, this announcement is only the beginning of the final phase of our campaign. We must keep the pressure on the new government to end child detention now, and not just accept a commitment to ‘phase it out’ or or to retain it ‘only for the shortest possible time’.

The UKBA, Serco and G4S will be trying to keep the detention industry profitably arresting and imprisoning asylum-seeking families-so we need to hold Nick Clegg and David Cameron to their pledge and ensure that any sabotage operation fails.

Everyone who can get to London on Saturday June 5th is encouraged to take part in the Release Carnival which is gathering in Torrington Square at 12.00 and then converging on Downing Street with clowns, dancers, street performers and lots and lots of people!

Lets hold them to their pledge – shut down the immigration jails – END CHILD DETENTION NOW!

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